The Writer's Compass: From Story Map to Finished Draft in 7 Stages Paperback – 29 Jun 2011
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About the Author
Nancy Ellen Dodd is a writer, editor, and university instructor teaching screenwriting and management communications at Pepperdine University. She also teaches writing workshops and serves as academic editor of the Graziadio Business Review at the Graziadio Business School at Pepperdine University.
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Reviewed by C. J. Singh (Berkeley, CA)
THE FOCUS ON THE THREE-ACT structure makes "The Writer's Compass" equally applicable to short story, novel, screenplay, and stage-play writing.
Basically, there are two very different approaches to generating the preliminary draft of a novel: Bottom Up and Top Down. The bottom-up approach calls for beginning with characters in a scene fragment; developing the fragment into a full scene; and then growing the scene into a sequence of scenes. The top-down approach begins with a one-sentence statement of what the novel is about; expanding the sentence to a paragraph that describes the major events and the end; sketching each of the major characters; listing the scenes; and synopsizing in a 1000-word or longer essay.
"The Writer's Compass" combines the best elements of the two approaches to present, stage-by-stage, the process of organically creating a map for your story. "As you come to know the characters, the plot, the obstacles, and the background, what you are really trying to say will emerge and develop.... Then when someone offers you feedback, you will know whether it will improve your story or lead you away from the story you want to write" (page 25).
It's impressive how effectively Nancy Dodd packs so much excellent instruction in just 216 pages. In the introduction, she sets up the book like "a three-act structure with Acts I, II, and III, represented as Beginning, Middle, and End" (p 1). The bibliography includes Syd Field, who pioneered screenwriting-craft books based on the three-act concept and plot points in his book, SCREENPLAY. Later, he added the concept of pinch points Refreshingly, Dodd is far more flexible on the location of the plot points than Field.
Part I, "Building a Writing Life" draws on Nancy Dodd's own experience while completing an MFA and a Master of Professional Writing degrees at the University of Southern California. Inspiring 24 pages, replete with practical tips.
Part II begins by explaining the concept of the story map and detailing the seven stages to a finished draft. Dodd titles the Seven Stages as follows:
"Stage 1: Forming Stories and Developing Ideas,
"Stage 2: Building Strong Structures,
"Stage 3: Creating Vibrant Characters,
"Stage 4: Structuring Scenes, Sequences, and Transitions,
"Stage 5: Increasing Tension and Adjusting Pacing,
"Stage 6: Enriching the Language and Dialogue,
"Stage 7: Editing the Hard Copy and Submitting."
Part III is devoted to goal-setting and writer's lifestyle.
Dodd's emphasis on planning the draft is highly persuasive: "When a story is developed strategically using the 7-stage process your writing is stronger and does not have to be revised as many times. For example, Stage 6 is `Enriching the Language and Dialogue.' If this task occurs before the structure is in place or the characters are developed, the writer finds herself needing to rewrite but not wanting to `disturb' the writing that has already been perfected. Because of this, she may hold on to scenes or bits of dialogue that do not work" (p 2). Exactly.
I wish I had this book to cite couple of months ago at the concluding workshop of my MFA degree program, when I argued that the overemphasis on the bottom-up approach leads to "darlings," which, many fiction-craft books advise writers to "kill your darlings" (citing Ernest Hemingway). I argued that it's better to avoid having darlings in the first place by focusing on the structure of the narrative before writing the preliminary draft.
Chapter 3 introduces the story map as "a type of outline written horizontally instead of vertically. It is more visual and does not need to be written in some sort of chronological flow. Nor does the story map need to be as detailed as an outline, and it has to contain only the essential elements good stories need" (p 35). Template of the story map is available for downloading at [...]. (I promptly made enlarged copies of the template on 11x17 sheets for my writing projects.) The chapter concludes with a suggestion to create a picture map using your drawing talent or by downloading clip art "that represent elements of your story" (p 59). I worried about the picture map. I'll go for the clip art suggestion Dodd offers. In any case the picture map is optional.
Chapters 4 through 10 explain step-by-step the process of developing the draft in the seven stages. Throughout these chapters examples abound from classic and contemporary works by writers like Henry Fielding, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, and Toni Morrison; playwrights like William Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, and Susan Glaspell; and films like "Beauty and the Beast," "Blade Runner," "Star Wars," and "Memento."
Five shining stars for this book.
Book negatives. I think the author tries to do too much in one book: she tries to cover all aspects of writing a novel\screenplay in short chapters where complete books have already been written that cover these topics. If you're new to story writing, then these chapters may be useful to you. Otherwise ...
Here is a glimpse of what's inside the book:
Part 1 - Building a Writing Life
Part 2 - The Story Map and the 7 Stage Process
Creating Your Story Map
Building a Strong Structure
Again, some of these chapters are covered much more completely elsewhere by entire books. But if you're new ...
For the new writer and for the experienced writer, and writing teams, collaborators, the chapters on building a story map will be a gold mine. With the methodology in this book, you will build a stronger, more intense story.
Read Nancy Dodd's book. Then get John Truby's or Robert McKee's book. Add what those writers teach about story to Nancy Dodd's story map methodology - and you'll be fully armed to tell a compelling, suspensefilled story.
I am so happy I found this book. I am only on stage 2, but the writer has taken me to a place where I now feel inspired. In the first chapter, she describes her own experience with being confused, all of the classes, workshops, books, critique groups, I think she felt buried too. But finally she had a light-bulb moment and everything fell into place. The result was The Writer's Compass and it is the best book on how to write I've ever read. At the very least, it is a good place to start and then read more books that go into further details about character, style, plot, structure, etc.
This book has given me direction and I'm grateful for it. I would definitely recommend it to anyone who has aspirations to write fiction.
the book is great in that in sets inside you your true compass and truly is very supportive in helping you out with letting the story you have inside, it helps you put it in paper bit by bit, there are very generous ideas and exercises about the whole writing process, the writer is very authentic in expressing her desire to help writers and she delivered